Twelve years ago, Paris-domiciled British artist Richard Kirk had a chance meeting over a pint in Soho – and discovered a new world. He became fascinated by a small piece of electroluminescent material powered by a simple battery at his table.
Despite having no scientific background, he embarked on a journey that has led to the development of medical devices that can be used to treat some of the most common causes of blindness.
Kirk founded PolyPhotonix in partnership with the Centre of Process Innovation (CPI), part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult to develop technology based on organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) that exploit the ability of certain organic molecules and polymers to emit light when an electric current is passed through them.
Grant funding for a healthcare revolution
With the support of Innovate UK, which has grant funded the company and its university research partners with about £12m since 2008, PolyPhotonix is on the verge of revolutionising treatment for degenerative sight-threatening conditions caused by age and diabetes, with Noctura – non-invasive devices that look like a sleep mask.
Much of the early, fundamental research for Noctura was undertaken at the University of Liverpool.
“The potential costs, both human and financial, facing health services around the world are deeply sobering. There’s an urgent need for an effective, repeatable, value for money treatment,” Kirk says.
The Noctura 400 and 500 devices developed by PolyPhotonix prevent damage caused during sleep by hypoxia (lack of oxygen) when the eye adapts to darkness. This in turn prevents the growth of abnormal blood vessels, which are a symptom of the disease and contribute to loss of vision.
“The Noctura 400 treatment has the potential to save more than £1bn per year from NHS budgets,” says Kirk.
Polyphotonix is working closely with UK universities and has five trials running concurrently, looking at various aspects of the treatment.
PolyPhotonix is now supplying Noctura 400 for a Phase III trial led by Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.
More recently, with the help of Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) Healthcare funding, the company has won a contract with the NHS to develop a Patient Care Pathway model to guide the eventual approval and adoption of the treatment by NICE and the NHS. It’s hoped that the treatment could be in general use by the end of 2015.
Diabetes is a growing global epidemic, so there’s a global market and big export potential for the Noctura devices, which are predominantly manufactured and assembled in the UK.
Access to finance
Access to finance was a big issue. Bank lending usually works on a three-to-five year cycle; that’s much shorter than the typical R&D cycle required to take a technology from laboratory to market, which is usually seven to ten years.
“In recent years there’s been no appetite to fund programmes with a significant manufacturing element, and bank support has never been an option for us,” Kirk notes.
His experience of working with the Centre for Process Innovation and the Technology Strategy Board was very different.
The company has benefited from Innovate UK grants for feasibility studies, the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme, and SBRI Healthcare is supporting its clinical trials and NHS programmes.
“Innovate UK has also been fantastic. We couldn’t have done any of this without them,” says Kirk.
The CPI’s knowledge of the R&D process shaped their attitude to investment in Polyphotonix. “Their management and scientific expertise has also helped us to fund much of our research through grants and competitions,” he concludes.